Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C] - October 10, 2010 (Luke 17:11-19)

You see, they were accustomed to shouting out. Declared by ritual Jewish law to be unclean, lepers—and all those stricken with any incurable skin disease—were not only to live alone and outside the city walls away from people, they were also to walk around shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” at the top of their lungs wherever they went to warn people of their presence. It was a humiliating chore, to say the least. As if it weren’t bad enough to be burdened with such a debilitating, disfiguring condition, a leper also had to bear the responsibility of reminding others how contagious they could be, what an outcast they were. When all they probably wanted was to fit in, to be one of the crowd, to be, at the very least, ignored and passed by—the leper was charged with constantly calling attention to his or her status as an ugly outsider. “Unclean! I’m a mess! I’m a reject!” they would essentially walk around saying. As much as anyone could get accustomed to such a thing, lepers were accustomed to shouting out.

So it would not have been that strange to be walking along the road in first-century Israel and happen upon lepers who were shouting at people. However, on this occasion, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” Ten of them, in fact, clumping together at a distance like a pack of mangy, stray dogs in a borderland village between Samaria and Galilee, glimpse Jesus and his disciples and cry out for mercy. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Recognizing Jesus for who he is (the only non-disciples to ascribe this name to Jesus), these ten lepers heave their desire for mercy upon him. It is not clear from the passage whether their expectation was that they would be healed, or if they simply saw him as a source of alms. Nevertheless, Jesus tells them to go present themselves to the priests.
The priests in those days were like the gatekeepers of the community. According to Jewish code, priests could declare people clean and restore them to dignity and to human community. Still stricken with leprosy—and probably still shouting out to people on their path—the ten turn to go check in with the priests and on their way, mysteriously, they are cleansed, much like Naaman the Syrian who had dipped seven times in the River Jordan to cure him of his leprosy. Both Naaman and the ten lepers were asked to do something that didn’t quite seem effective in order to realize their healing. Go to the priests. “OK,” they shrug. On their way, they are healed.

And then they fall silent…finally! No longer infectious, no longer contagious, they have no need to shout out anymore. No need to cry out on the road, no need to remind everyone of their condition. No more shouting…except for one…one leper who returns, still shouting, still crying out, still yelling at the time of his lungs—yet this time contagious with praise and thanksgiving.

Each week either Chris or I stand in front of you as we prepare the table for Holy Communion and we have a little dialogue. “The Lord be with you,” we say.  And you respond, “And also with you,” as if there is something about Jesus that is catching, something that can be shared. Perhaps we should shout it?

Then we continue: “Lift up your hearts,” to which you reply, “We lift them to the Lord.”

Then we suggest, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and you oblige: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

At that point either Chris or I, directing our attention to the one who has called us here, to the one who has given us new life, to the one who has healed us of sin time and time again, says, “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ.”  The green hymnal used the word “salutary” at this point, which I thought was helpful. “Salutary,” a seldom-used word these days, means, well, “helpful.” Beneficial. Good for us.

Well, whether or not we say “salutary” every Sunday in our worship we still participate in the very actions that single Samaritan leper demonstrated on that road to Jerusalem. Getting ready to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, you and I have, in some sense, heard his shouting and contracted his infectious joy and thanksgiving. Down through the ages it has been passed along, from one cleansed sinner to another. He has declared us clean in the waters of baptism and set us free. We find ourselves responding to Jesus’ great mercy for us by shouting praise and giving our thanks. In fact, the words in Greek for this leper’s actions are doxazon and eucharistein, two words which may sound foreign to our ears, until when we think of the words doxology and Eucharist. Enthralled by Jesus’ mercy and thrilled to be healed, the leper forgets the priests and instead runs back to the feet of the one who healed him, shouting doxology and making eucharist as he goes. Praise and thanksgiving: yes, these things are right, they are a joy…and they are good for us.

One of our professors at seminary had a practice of carrying his hymnal with him as he left his pew to get in line to receive Holy Communion. Whereas most people, when it came time to stand up and follow the usher’s lead, stop singing the communion hymns, and lay their hymnal down to assume a more quiet stance in line, this professor would keep on singing, stopping only for the few seconds it took him to hold out his hand and take the bread. I liked the image: so filled with joy and thankfulness on the way to receive and give thanks to Jesus that his words of praise cannot be silenced. I have noticed, with happiness, that several of you sing at the communion rail as you kneel. It is an infectious action. That one professor, with such a simple gesture, spurred several other worshippers to think again about their attitude toward Jesus’ merciful presence.

Indeed, the experience of the one leper reminds us that not only is praise and thanksgiving really the first and best response to our Lord’s grace, but that before we can be sent out into the world with the news about Jesus, we must return to him in worship. Jesus’ shock at the ingratitude of the other nine does not mean their healing is revoked. After all, they did exactly what he commanded. But the one leper reveals the truest life of the sinner who has been redeemed: through this return in praise and thanksgiving we realize in our heart of hearts that, in the end, the only place we really can go to encounter God’s mercy is in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who hangs on the cross.

Christian writer Don Miller writes in his best-selling book, Blue Like Jazz, that “the most important thing that happens within Christian spirituality is when a person falls in love with Jesus.” He goes on to say, “I know our culture will sometimes understand a love for Jesus as weakness. There is this lie floating around that says I am supposed to be able to do life along, without any help, without stopping to worship something bigger than myself. But I actually believe there is something bigger than me,” Miller continues, “and I need for there to be something bigger than me. I need someone to put awe inside me; I need to come second to someone who has everything figured out.” (Thomas Nelson, 2003. p 237). Salutary.

And that all makes sense to me—the need to fall down and worship something bigger and more awe-inspiring than myself, the carrying my hymnal to Communion so I can sing my praise, the salutary effect this all has on my soul, but often it’s still as if only about a tenth of me, if that, actually succeeds in responding. I estimate that only about a tenth of my heart, my mind, my soul—a tenth, at the most—that sings with joy and praise when I know I can run to him on the road. For all the times I’ve been drawn into the wonder of praise and thanksgiving at the foot of Jesus, there are nine more parts of me that go elsewhere.  There are nine more parts of me that fall in love with something other than Jesus. But thanks to the actions of this one leper, I’d like to think Jesus is pleased with that one faithful part.

Earlier this summer a stray cat started hanging out on our porch. We thought he was a little sketchy both in appearance and behavior, so we kept clear of him. We made sure our daughters knew he was an unclean cat. But eventually he wore us down, and we finally fed him one morning. One bowl. That was all. He disappeared later that day and night, but the next morning, about the same time, that cat came back. And, of course, we did it again. We gave him more food. And again. And now every morning. Our girls, ages two and three, get so excited each morning when they discover he’s returned.
It never gets old for them, even here on day forty-three. It’s like they can’t believe it. You should see their faces. They are so happy that he has come back for more, as if he’s expressing his thanks.

I’d like to think that’s something like the look on Jesus’ face each times he sees us rounding the bend, bowled over as we are by his mercy, the hymnals of our hearts open wide, growing more and more accustomed to shouting out our cries for mercy or our songs of thanksgiving.

The Lord be with you!!!

And also with you.

Got it! Thanks. And thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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